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Uvalde Students Fought for Desegregation in 1970s. Now Let’s Rise Up for Them.

In the 1970s, Uvalde students led the struggle for equal opportunity within Texas’s segregated school system.

People hug as they mourn outside of Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home in Uvalde, Texas, on May 30, 2022, during the visitation for Amerie Jo Garza, who died in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

Communities of Mexican origin and others throughout the United States, in Mexico and beyond, are mobilizing in solidarity with the suffering of the community of Uvalde, Texas. This includes student walkouts at more than 200 schools on May 26 in the first wave of a renewed national movement for rational gun control measures led by survivors and families of previous mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and elsewhere.

The horrific slaughter in Uvalde of 19 students and of two heroic teachers who died seeking to protect them should also remind us of all the ways in which children of color have been treated as if they were expendable, and the historical roots of these oppressive conditions. The children of Robb Elementary School are our children, who are emblematic of our families and our future: nuestro pueblo.

The implications of the incalculable tragedy of Uvalde must also be understood within a broader historical context. Uvalde is located roughly halfway between the U.S.-Mexico border and San Antonio, Texas. More than 80 percent of the population of the school district and city of Uvalde is classified as “Hispanic” according to census data.

As in much of Texas, Uvalde is a rural, primarily working-class town of overwhelmingly Mexican descent and origin. Uvalde is thus also a border community in the broadest sense — geographically, demographically, socially, culturally and historically — with deep roots in both the U.S. and Mexico, and with many families of mixed immigration status. Much of this context has been ignored or rendered invisible by the predominant narratives promoted by commercial media, including the dilution of Uvalde’s distinctive character by categorizing its population as generically “Hispanic” or Latino/a, and by mispronouncing its name.

Uvalde and Border Militarization and Policing

The convergent failures by local, state and federal authorities to adequately protect and rescue these children reflect deeper systemic issues related to the unequal policing and schooling of communities of color in Texas and throughout the U.S. They also highlight the urgent need to organically connect struggles and demands for the abolition of mass incarceration and the mass detention of migrants, and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol, with calls for an end to racist policing and the criminalization of migrants.

At the same time, efforts to glorify the belated but supposedly decisive intervention at the culminating moments of the Uvalde massacre of the Border Patrol’s Tactical Unit (BORTAC) can ironically serve to underline this unit’s lack of transparency and accountability. This includes the expansion of BORTAC’s original mission focused on “SWAT-style raids on organized gangs smuggling immigrants or drugs across the US border” to deployments in Portland, Oregon, and potentially to Albuquerque, Chicago and New York. This was a key dimension of the Trump administration’s unsuccessful plans to repress mass protests during the summer of the George Floyd uprisings in 2020.

BORTAC has also been deployed internationally to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as several Latin American countries, as part of a broader vision that seeks to position the Border Patrol as a “marine corps of the US federal law enforcement community.” All of this seeks to build on its standing, together with ICE (both within the Department of Homeland security), as the largest police force in the country, and one of the largest in the world. Uvalde and the border region, from this perspective, are often treated as if they were occupied territory, as they were on the day of the Robb Elementary School massacre. This is reinforced by the Border Patrol’s generalized, recurrent impunity in more than 200 deaths since 2010, including multiple cases of deaths in custody of migrant children and youth.

Uvalde is thus representative of broader patterns, as a community that is ostentatiously policed, divided and employed by the Border Patrol, at the edge of the heavily militarized U.S-Mexico border region. Texas itself is, of course, a state indelibly marked by the continuing legacies of white supremacy through intertwined processes of Indigenous dispossession, African slavery, and the invasion, conquest and colonial settlement of Mexican territory. These are the driving forces that have produced the deep, lingering inequities that are evident in settings such as Robb Elementary School, and in broader patterns throughout Uvalde and similar school districts within the state.

The carnage at Robb Elementary School strikes deeply at our sense of vulnerability, as did the El Paso, Texas, massacre in 2019, and convergent crimes also driven by racism and white supremacy, such as the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York. Cases such as these highlight the persistent effects of the targeting of our communities by the human rights crimes of the Trump administration and its apologists, and more recently by the Biden administration’s own abuses and inconsistencies.

For many of us committed to the struggle for immigrant justice, it has become clear that the border is much more than the imaginary line and the increasingly divisive wall that separates the U.S. from Mexico, Latin America and the Global South. Increasingly repressive U.S. immigration policies have taught us instead that the border is an open wound that runs through every community where we are present as immigrant communities of color, and that bleeds into each of the countries and places of origin of our migrant and forcibly displaced sisters and brothers.

This landscape is concretely reflected in the intertwined neocolonial legacies of conquest and racial, cultural and linguistic subordination of people of Mexican origin. These are the traces that continue to permeate the soil and air of Uvalde, and of the border region, through the racialized control of land, labor and resources. We have also learned within this context that it is the border itself, with all its trappings and imaginaries, which generates the intricate machineries of structural violence inherent to U.S. immigration policy and its regional and global equivalents.

This includes the recurrent history of racial violence against communities of Mexican origin throughout Texas, including hundreds of lynchings, which have been reconstructed by scholars such as Marcia Muñoz Martínez and the Refusing to Forget project, as well as William D. Carrigan, Clive Webb and Nicholas Villanueva, among others. This largely suppressed history includes reports of as many as 11 cases of this kind in and around Uvalde during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The identity of the Uvalde killer as a youth of Mexican descent or origin, like 80 percent of the students in this school district, has, of course, also been seized upon by others to reaffirm our supposedly inherent, “alien dangerousness.” But we should know by now that the deadly violence unleashed in Uvalde is, in fact, deeply characteristic of the U.S. — just like the guns from the U.S. that have flooded into Mexico to nourish drug violence.

Uvalde and Community-Based Struggles for Educational Equality

But Uvalde stands for much more than supposed “Latino-on-Latino” violence, or the suffering of ostensibly passive victims. One place to begin a fuller, more accurate story is with Robb Elementary School itself, and with the history of the struggle for equality in the public schools in Uvalde.

A quick glance reveals what too many of us have forgotten, regarding the central, historic role played by Mexican communities like that of Uvalde in complex, challenging struggles against the statewide system of racial segregation and its local expressions.

These are the kinds of systemic practices which led the Uvalde school district to manipulate student assignment policies so that Robb Elementary could be maintained as a segregated “Mexican school” from the time it was established in 1954, ironically the same year as the Supreme Court’s landmark decision holding that measures of this kind were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.

This kind of segregation was customary throughout Texas, as elsewhere in the southwest, affecting both Black and Brown students, and was only finally dismantled because of community-based struggles in places like Uvalde, combined with targeted litigation.

In Uvalde this included activism, initially through a Mexican veterans’ branch of the American Legion, and then led by local youth focused on redressing unjust conditions in the Uvalde schools through the Mexican American Youth Organization. It was this core that constituted the leadership of the group that became known as La Raza Unida Party (LRUP), one of the most important driving forces in the national Chicano liberation movement of the 1970s.

Uvalde is only 40 miles away from Crystal City (known widely as Cristal), which became the first community in Texas to elect an LRUP majority on its school board, in 1970. It is thus not surprising that in Uvalde itself, 500 students led a walkout from the local schools that began on April 14, 1970. It became the longest boycott of its kind during this crucial period of Chicano activism. The Uvalde movement built on the lessons of the East Los Angeles, California, student walkouts in April 1968 and of the community-based boycott of the New York City public schools in February 1964, which laid the groundwork there for desegregation.

Organizer Genoveva Morales became renowned in Uvalde as a key leader of the Mexican community’s struggle against segregation and for equal educational opportunities and was the lead plaintiff on behalf of her son Roberto, in what eventually became a landmark case known as Morales v. Shannon decided by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1975. The ruling reversed a lower court decision, and found that the Uvalde schools had to be fully desegregated, based in part on the maintenance of Robb Elementary as a separate and unequal “Mexican school.

For almost 40 years federal judges supervised and monitored implementation by the Uvalde school district of court-ordered remedies including desegregation, bilingual education and affirmative action measures to ensure the hiring and promotion of teachers representative of the community. Another form of symbolic reparations finally came in 2014, when a junior high school in Uvalde was named in honor of Morales.

Will Robb’s status as a “Mexican school” be remembered, as well as its 1970 walkout, when it is razed and replaced by a new building, as is apparently planned? Although they’re no longer formally segregated, the Uvalde public schools today continue to reflect the vestiges of historical discrimination against children of Mexican descent and origin, who constitute about 90 percent of the students at Robb Elementary.

According to school district data, more than 81 percent of the students at this school are eligible for a free or reduced cost lunch, while students’ test scores and overall academic progress last year were far below the state average. In the 2020-21 school year, more than 67 percent of the district’s students were considered to be at risk of dropping out. Several sources identify the reported killer as a student who was bullied because of a speech impediment, who became frustrated and eventually dropped out or was expelled.

These are the kinds of inequities in Uvalde’s schools that led to the 1970 walkout. Now things have come full circle, with the national student walkout that was held on May 26 in solidarity with the students of Uvalde. It was the students of Uvalde who stood up for us in the 1970s. Today the time has come for us to rise up for them.

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